Chris Wren is not to be confused with the famous British architect of yore (“If anybody calls, say I am designing St. Paul's.”). This Chris Wren is executive director of Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority. If you want to get his attention, criticize the Wave, the street car planned for 2.7 miles of busy center city streets. We did that a few weeks ago, and Wren took the trouble to visit our office yesterday with Elizabeth Van Zandt, Planning & Design Manager.
Wren is an exuberant salesman and Ms. Van Zandt backs him with stats. The Wave is also his baby, and he fully understands the concern we expressed, for he has had the same argument with his own board and most entities who have eventually supported the project.
It seemed to us that running a street car without a dedicated lane is a step forward to the past. When street cars, or trolleys as we called them up north, were introduced about 100 years ago, there were few cars on city streets. In fact, there were still horse-drawn carriages. We have old Philadelphia photos of trolleys running on unpaved roads. Those vehicles were vastly useful. Everybody rode them.
But as traffic increased, the utility declined. The tracks were usually in the middle of streets. When the trolley stopped every block or so, cars on the inside lane had to stop to avoid hitting people getting on and off. Trolleys wound up slowing traffic, offsetting their basic intention, and except for a few preserved as tourist attractions, they were eventually replaced by buses. In recent years, however, light rail has been introduced in several cities. These are vehicles that run on tracks on city streets, but in dedicated lanes and with traffic lights geared to give them a right of way. They don’t go at breathtaking speeds, but they sure beat traffic jams. When feasible, these tracks connect to mainline railroads, where the street cars become commuter trains, racing at good speed for 20 miles or more to serve all those suburban towns that sprung up along the original railroads.
It is such a system we hoped for Fort Lauderdale. Wren would agree that would be ideal, but then makes a series of points that could be grouped under the heading “think long term.” The Wave is being built now because the money (50 percent federal) is available, but it is not designed in isolation. It is intended as part of a much broader plan that would include the FEC railroad corridor, Tri-Rail and virtually all other forms of transportation short of the Goodyear Blimp. The DDA obviously controls only a small section of South Florida real estate, but it is coordinating with Broward County and other agencies.
Wren produces a map envisioning the expansion of the Wave west on Broward Boulevard to U.S. 441, and south to the airport and then west to Davie and even as far as University Drive. Once free from the intense downtown traffic, a street car could make pretty good time. And he points out the initial line will have traffic lights prioritized, meaning it won’t have to stop every block or so.
He thinks the Wave will have good ridership from the beginning because it will originate in the heart of downtown with high-traffic destinations such as the county and federal courthouses and Broward General hospital. And he cites statistics to show that such transportation leads to development all along it. He throws out an amount of $6 in return for every dollar spent.
But the real value, he says, would come when the FEC completes its train between Miami and Orlando (scheduled for next year) with a stop in downtown Fort Lauderdale; and when, as seems invevitable, Tri-Rail switches some commuter trains to the FEC tracks. The Wave will make the connection from the station to places where travelers want to go.
Chris Wren does not think the Wave is perfect.
“But it’s a good first step,” he says.